Why WNKU-FM Is Changing Its Tune

Oct 9, 2015

Matt Sledge
Credit Matt Sledge

Why did WNKU-FM drop “UnderCurrents,” “E-Town” and “Little Steven’s Underground Garage” and move “The Real Mary Peale” and the “World  Café?”

“It’s fairly straight forward,” says Sean O’Mealy, general manager. “The objective is to appeal to and engage with a larger/wider group of music lovers in the Greater Cincinnati region who otherwise are ignored by mainstream radio.”

The new fall lineup implemented this week features more local shows. Former WOXY-FM host Matt Sledge will be heard 2-7 p.m. Saturday, with Peale moving to 5-8 p.m. Sunday nights. She had hosted  “Jelly Pudding” Sunday nights on WOFX-FM (92.5) before joining WNKU-FM in 2009.  "Mr Rhythm Man" now airs 7-10 p.m. Saturday, and Katie Laur's  "Music From The Hills Of Home" airs 8-11 p.m. Sunday. 

This is the second round of changes made by O’Mealy since he arrived in February.

Last spring program director/host Michael Grayson and newsman Steve Hirschberg were let go; Brian O’Donnell retired from his Saturday morning show; National Public Radio newscasts were dropped; and the music playlist was expanded.

“Change is hard, especially when it’s about one individual’s opinion and or personal preference in music.  Unfortunately we can’t play everyone’s favorites. That’s simply not a sustainable business model for any radio station, commercial or public,” O’Mealy says.

“I would invite you to review today’s playlist at wnku.org. You’ll see everything from new artists like Destroyer to the new Ryan Adams to Frank Zappa’s “Joe’s Garage” and cool soul classics like Ramsey Lewis’s “The In Crowd”. This kind of diversity cannot be found on commercial terrestrial radio,” he says.

Sledge, who starts his Saturday shift this weekend after filling in for two months, said he is "really excited about all of the changes. It's like a grown-up version of 97X, and I couldn't be happier with how it's going."

David Dye’s “World Café,” an early evening staple for years, has been moved to 4-6 a.m. weekdays. UnderCurrents,” “E-Town” and “Little Steven’s Underground Garage” were canceled to air more “locally-produced programming… you can’t hear anywhere else,” explained Aaron Sharpe, WNKU-FM development and marketing director, on the station’s website.

“You can hear those very same syndicated shows elsewhere via podcasts, on-demand, other terrestrial radio streams, etc.  We’d rather focus on local, original content curated by WNKU for our local communities,” O’Mealy said.

“WNKU’s month long celebration of King Records last month is a great example of that.   Another example is starting later this month WNKU will begin playing one local artist every hour, every day. Local is good,” O’Mealy said.

When I first met O'Mealy in August, he described WNKU-FM as a “sleeping giant,” and “probably the most underperforming Triple A (adult album alternative) station in the country.”  WNKU-FM also serves southwestern Ohio, northeastern Kentucky and parts of West Virginia with Middletown’ old WPFB-FM (105.9) and Portsmouth’s old WPAY-FM (104.1) purchased in 2011.

O’Mealy said his  goal is to increase the audience by transforming WNKU-FM into “a contemporary non-commercial music station for Cincinnati,” knowing that could alienate long-time core listeners.

“In my opinion, WNKU stopped growing as a radio station 20 years ago. It’s like a private club,” he said.

One of his first moves was to “lose the news,” after Nielsen ratings research showed WNKU-FM listeners “were leaving at the top of the hour,” when the station aired the “same (NPR) newscasts that WVXU-FM did,” O’Mealy said in August. “We have no interest in news. WVXU does a really good job at being a news and information station.”

“We’re a music station. We made the decision to go with what the station is really good at doing,” he said.

Stay tuned.